a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|The credit for the invention of calculus has long been contested, being claimed by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. A committee established by the Royal Society in 1712 concluded that Newton was not guilty of plagiarism in his work on calculus, but rather was its true inventor. In this play-within-a-play, we go behind the scenes of a play that is being produced in 1725 which suggests (as many now believe) that Newton unreasonably influenced the outcome of this committee in his favor.
Note added 2010: The play was rewritten and re-released as Verrechnet, which has a separate entry.
I like the way the play moves back and forth between the "playwrights" working on their play about Newton in 1725 and the scenes that they are writing that take place in 1712. Most of the irony and humor work as well, although a couple of the jokes (e.g. when one author thinks to call the play "Newton's Whores" and the other mistakenly thinks he said "Newton's Horse") were not quite to my taste. Overall, as a work of art I must say that it is quite good. I am not at all certain how historically accurate it is, but I can say that it paints a much "darker" picture of Newton's personality than anything else I have read. Here we see none of his genius or positive attributes of any kind and instead only see him as a completely amoral self-promoter. Perhaps Djerassi is saved from having to take any potential charges of slander too seriously by being able to explain that he does not claim this actually happened, but rather that Cibber and Vanbrugh (the authors in the play) might have said so. Nevertheless, reading this play (and probably more so seeing it) leave one with a very negative opinion of Newton. (Again, I admit that it may be an accurate negative opinion...I am not really qualified to say.)
I would like to briefly comment on the following passage:
I agree with the sentiment of the last remark, and thought that some visitors to this site might similarly appreciate this analogy. However, I also include this quote here to demonstrate a sort of self referential irony that runs throughout the play. When Cibber discusses their lack of competence in mathematics (despite undertaking the task of writing a play about Newton), it is as if Djerassi is apologizing to the reader for his own lack of mathematical ability.
Perhaps it is for this reason that there really is relatively little mathematics in the play at all. What little appears is rather broadly stated, such as in this one scene in the play that actually features Newton and Leibniz (portrayed by Cibber and VanBrugh).
The only mathematical objections I have to the play are when Bonet is able to guess what integral calculus is after only the barest introduction to differential calculus (it is not that obvious) and when Arbuthnot defends Newton by pointing out how many of his great achievements would stand without calculus ("Consider the laws of motion and of gravitation, of light and color....and his work on celestial mechanics. Calculus was not needed for any of them. Even without the calculus, Newton would be our greatest.") I think that of these, only his work on light and color would be possible without calculus.
We actually see quite a bit more of Abraham de Moivre than we see of Newton or Leibniz in this play. But the focus is always on Newton and his manipulative ways. Having read this, I will never think of Newton in the same way again. (I hope he is deserving of this new viewpoint, since if it is only slander, it is still effective enough to have an impact.)
Djerassi, best known as a chemist for his role in the invention of ``the pill', is also the author of many works of fiction. Although the title of his Bourbaki Gambit sounds mathematical, I think this may be his first work of mathematical fiction. (Note: Bourbaki was the pseudonym used by a group of French mathematicians to promote a particular viewpoint on mathematics. Djerassi uses the name in the title as a reference, but does not actually discusss mathematics in the book.)
An earlier version of the play was read and performed in California in 2002 and 2003, but it officially opened in London in the summer of 2004. The script appears in a book bundled together with the play Newton's Hooke by David Pinner.
Note that the novel Quicksilver also addresses the historical relationship between Newton, Hooke and Leibniz.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)